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Saturday, 31 December 2011

'Things I know now that I didn’t know then', part 154

In the dual time zone of 1976 /2011, Johnny Mathis has recently knocked Showaddywaddy’s ‘Under the Moon of Love’ from the top of the charts.

Mathis had a distinctive crooning style (said to be based on the desire, during his formative years, to emulate his favourite female vocalists) and his song was an obvious candidate for the Christmas number one; hell, it even had a schmaltzy spoken part designed to bring a tear to your glass eye. It would have been hard to compete against something that seasonal (not to mention well-executed) and poor old Showaddywaddy capitulated after three weeks at the top. Although they were denied the glory of being crowned Kings of the Christmas countdown, they are worth more than a passing mention because, now that the concept of ‘shame’ has largely disappeared from the showbiz lexicon, it’s difficult to think of a modern-day equivalent of Showaddywaddy.

Hailing from Leicester, a city that has never really been acknowledged as one of Britain’s rock and roll capitals, this phalanx of pretend Teddy Boys occupied a special place in my teenage consciousness. When I was at school, they were the sheer, living embodiment of naff. In fact, the style police would have considered ‘naff’ a disgracefully lenient judgement on their schtick, because Showaddywaddy were the colossi of anti-cool; they were as far from the concept of ‘cool’ as it was possible to get. Like a massive black hole in the distant galaxy of Ultra-Naff Major, they exerted a gravitational pull so powerful that the slightest exposure to their work had the potential to suck you down into unimaginable depths of oblivion, shame and ostracism.

Their nickname among the cognoscenti was Sho-fannypaddy. The alliterative word play around their name, the inferred link between their musical prowess and menstrual discharge was not, whichever way you might try to spin it, much of a compliment. To admit to admiring their music might have impressed people, but only in the same way that talking to yourself on the bus would have impressed people. There was a bloke in my class who admitted to liking them and, rather than take this at face value, even the kindest among us interpreted this predilection as an embarrassing lapse in taste, never to be mentioned in polite company. Harsher critics considered it a symptom of his simple-mindedness.

Now that I’m middle-aged and more or less impervious to the whims of fashion, Showaddywaddy look like they would be a good night out. Their material was a tad lightweight, but that’s a charge you could level at most pop acts. They had a dress code, but still allowed individual characters to express a little bit of personality. Best of all, they had an engaging front man in Dave Bartram. He sported one of those big, sexy mouths that would lead you to think that he must have been at least a distant cousin of the Tyler showbiz clan. His movements were just graceful enough to be ‘pop star’ appropriate, without appearing to be too posy or contrived. If you’d like to see a visual demonstration of ‘posy and contrived’, look up Rod Stewart performing ‘The Killing of Georgie’ on Top of the Pops. To say that Rod camped it up outrageously would be something of an understatement.

Bartram had a certain easy charm with the camera and was also comfortable enough to get in among the audience when the mood was right. He looked like a bloke who just happened to be a singer in a band and it’s really hard not to like him, even if you’re thinking that the whole Teddy Boy look is just so déclassé. And remember that, in 1976, the members of Showaddywaddy were aping a look that had been dead for the best part of twenty years. To a teenager, that seemed like the most hideous crime imaginable, but Dave Bartram and Showaddywaddy didn’t seem to mind. They just looked like they were enjoying themselves and trying to entertain people.

I wish I’d been simple-minded enough to have known that at the time.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

You can say what you like, except you can't

Congratulations to the Scottish government for yet another act of buffoonery.
Following the debacle of their ill-considered 'let's make alcohol harder to buy' legislation, in which they demonstrated that they weren’t even smart enough to anticipate (and therefore prepare for) even the most glaring loopholes in their cunning plan, they have now acted to ‘solve’ the problem of sectarianism in Scotland.
The new legislation, according to Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham, is designed to catch any songs that create or risk public disorder. In cases where the chants or songs might fall short of the ‘public disorder’ benchmark, it will be up to individual police officers to decide whether the chants and songs are offensive enough to incite wider disorder.

So, to summarise: What you’re singing at a football match might be likely to get you thrown into jail. Or it might not. It all depends upon who is on duty at the time.

The very idea of this legislation makes some big statements about how the political class view the people they purport to represent. They have placed us all on a continuum that has name-calling at one end and attempted murder at the other. We are not, in their eyes, a nation of rational or resilient individuals; rather, we are a collection of fragile, damaged, volatile morons in need -above all else- of protection from ourselves.

They will see this legislation as being necessary because they believe that we are all either potential victims or potential perpetrators; we’ll either suffer psychological damage by being called a fenian or a hun, or we’ll be the kind of person who will start by using those words and then take a few tiny steps along the continuum to the point where we’ll start sending parcel bombs to celebrities.

There might well be a connection between shouting something inappropriate at a football match and sending someone a parcel bomb, but it's the same kind of connection that exists between having a knife in your kitchen drawer and actually stabbing someone.

Sadly, Scotland is now a country where teenagers -as recent examples have shown- can be jailed for singing a song or for posting an idiotic opinion online. We shouldn’t be inclined to trust governments at the best of times, but we should never, ever trust any government that would seek to outlaw the expression of socially /politically /culturally 'awkward' opinions.
In any sane and civilised society, the kind of people who would author legislation like this would be allocated, at best, a job looking after the coloured pencils.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

It's going to get worse before it gets worse

It would appear that the tide of opinion on the EU might have taken a significant turn (unless, that is, you work for the BBC). Significant change in public opinion has been rather slow to arrive, perhaps because –up until now- the pro-EU faction had very successfully skewed the debate to the extent that anything 'anti-EU' was seen as anti-European, anti-progress, xenophobic ‘little Englander’ nonsense. That was, at best, an intellectually feeble tactic, because it’s clear that one can be in favour of increased co-operation, trade, labour movement and so on without being in favour of central planning and big, unaccountable government.

Let's be absolutely clear about this: the EU is not Europe. The EU is a concerted attempt to run Europe from a central source. And what’s worse is that this concerted attempt is fuelled by a chilling determination not to allow anything as inconvenient as ‘democracy’ to get in the way. Just ask voters in Denmark, Ireland, France and The Netherlands; how many referenda on the constitution did the EU bigwigs ignore? What was it about the word 'no' that they didn't understand? And don't even bother asking voters in Greece and Italy anymore, because they now have their very own 'appointed' governments.

It has been clear for some time that there is a political and bureaucratic elite that is absolutely determined to establish a 'united states' of Europe. The drift towards fiscal (to be followed, inevitably, by political) union among Eurozone members continues apace, with no indication that the electorate in any of these countries will get to have a say. They won’t get a say because the architects and drivers of this project do not trust us, the great unwashed, to do the right thing. They have, effectively, placed a firewall between themselves and the people they purport to represent. Impervious to anything as vulgar as public opinion, the EU leaders believe themselves to be protected from the ‘virus’ of democratic accountability.

Their disdain is what should alarm us most. History tells us that when people can’t change things via the ballot box, they find other ways to change things. When the mere casting of votes means so very little to the drivers of the EU project, the likelihood increases that they will only be deflected from their purpose by something that might turn out to be altogether less pleasant than the average election.

All previous attempts at 'unifying' Europe have ended in tears; this one will as well.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

In praise of ugliness

One of the charming things about watching these TotP re-runs is that you can’t help but notice that you didn’t have to be all that good-looking to be a pop star in 1976. You could be riding high in the charts with average songs and below-average looks; or, in certain cases, you could get away with being plug-ugly. Take, for instance, the Kursaal Flyers. Their hit song ‘Little does she know’ was pleasant enough, but blimey, those lads had faces that only a mother could love. The singer looked like he’d come straight from running the waltzer franchise at a fairground in Skegness, sporting the peacock hairstyle and spiv moustache of a man not unfamiliar with the company of what used to be called ‘jailbait’.
His dental regime truly was a sight to behold. Imagine, if you will, that the average mouthful of teeth is something that is routinely installed by respectable construction companies, operating under licence and to strict professional guidelines. Not so, alas, for your man from the Kursaals. His gob looked like several cowboy builders, each determined to pre-empt a messy legal case over property rights, had gone ahead and started work without the necessary planning permission. In fact, each rogue firm, in its desire to get the job done and move on to the next act of civic vandalism, had gone ahead without any ‘planning’ at all. His upper east side bore no aesthetic or proportional relationship to his lower south, while his menacing lower east side could best be described as ‘untamed’. Nowadays, the only kind of pop singer who might conceivably get away with that sort of dental regime would be the kind that turned up in the early auditions for X-Factor, probably accompanied by a social worker.

The Kursaal’s bass player, who didn’t look like he had skipped many meals in pursuit of his craft, had the look of drunk rotary club member on a package holiday, invited up onto the stage at the end of the night by the house band. His dancing was every bit as good as you’d expect from a drunk 54-year old man with no sense of rhythm and an overwhelming need to visit the toilet. To be fair, the song was pretty good and any band that was willing to perform in front of a row of washing machines, as they did, must have had a sense of humour. And not many folk write lyrics like these anymore:

When she finished her laundry, she was all in a quandary, and made for the street like a hare. Her escape was so urgent, she forgot her detergent, and dropped all her clean underwear.
Little does she know that I know that she knows that I know she’s two-timing me.

In spite of having some nice, middle-of-the-road (and, frankly, a bit bland) songs, Doctor Hook took the ugliness deal to an altogether more menacing level. They had somehow mastered the art of sounding like a bunch of big girl’s blouses, but looking like a crowd of ruffians. The best way to describe them would be to imagine a film in which a young pair of city slickers on their honeymoon get into trouble somewhere in the southern states. There will be a scene in which the twenty-something, clean-shaven, city-dude husband and his pretty young schoolteacher wife will go into a bar in Ratchetsville, Missouri (population 137) to try and get help after their car has broken down. Well, the guys who will beat the husband up and abduct the pretty young wife will be Doctor Hook.

In the dual time zone 1976 /2011, a German band called Pussycat has just been removed from the number one slot after several weeks at the top with a song called ‘Mississippi’. Catching their act 35 years on, one can’t help but be impressed by the fact that they had also mastered a ‘Doctor Hook’ style image paradox. Even as they sat on the very top of the showbiz pile, Pussycat managed to look like a jaded, middle-of-the-road covers band. In their own way, they may well have been quite excited about being number one, but their enervated demeanour was illustrative of a band that was either:

a) performing their third set of the night at the Spratlington North Miners Welfare Club, or
b) under the influence of some pre-gig ‘herbal’ cigarettes.

Like the bloke in the Kursaal Flyers, the lead singer in Pussycat had a somewhat relaxed attitude to dental excellence. Had she ever been unfortunate enough to have had her jaw wired up after an accident, she would have been consoled by the fact that she sported a gap in her front teeth that would comfortably have allowed her to have been fed through a very large straw. I wouldn’t swear to it, but such was the gap that she might even have been able to cope with a bar of toblerone.

Last week’s episode also featured Legs and Co dancing to ‘Maid in Heaven’ by Be-Bop Deluxe. It’s a song I know very well and, according to Jimmy Saville, it was working its way up the charts from the rather modest position of 36, with a bullet. Well, if not quite a bullet, then maybe something fired from a pea-shooter. Given the embarrassment of riches throughout the rest of the top 40, one wonders why the dancers picked this particular song to interpret. I guess someone somewhere at the BBC must have liked Be-Bop Deluxe, because the song evidently wasn’t picked because the dance routine bore any significant relationship to the lyrical content or, indeed, the rhythm track. In fact, you might have got an equally valid interpretation of the song from watching a monkey on a bicycle, towing a fridge on wheels. The monkey would have been funnier, but perhaps not quite as pleasing on the eye.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Taking offence

Jeremy Clarkson is a man who says controversial things and gets paid for it. Nice work, if you can get it. I’m sure he earns a beautiful dollar, what with his TV appearances, his books, his DVDs and all the rest of it. In the run up to Christmas, I’d wager that he’ll be looking for opportunities to promote those products.
Last week, Clarkson said something on TV about the public sector strike and duly sent the electronic lynch mob into a frenzy of righteous indignation. Twitter, by all accounts, was in uproar. Some 20,000 viewers are said to have complained to the BBC, ‘offended’ by his remarks about shooting the strikers. Ed Miliband claimed that Clarkson's words were "disgraceful and disgusting." To be fair, Clarkson probably reminds poor Ed of the bad boys who used to throw his satchel up on to the roof of the school shed. UNISON, at one point, threatened legal action. The union, according to sources, was “considering reporting the Top Gear presenter to the police over comments made on The One Show.”

Oh dear. A man cracks a not very funny joke on TV and union leaders want to go the police. Is this the level to which our political discourse has sunk? If you say “I am offended by that” do you somehow qualify for a special set of rights and privileges that allow you to stamp your little feet and sulk on the moral high ground until you get your way? Does being ‘offended’ entitle you to seek and expect punishment for a man who was, let’s remember, doing his job by attempting to make a series of humorous remarks? What an extraordinary state of affairs.

I am by no means a fan of Mr Clarkson’s work. If however, I had to choose between supporting, on the one hand, a moderately amusing blowhard polemicist and, on the other, those who would seek to use their sense of outrage to silence the expression of ‘unpalatable’ opinions … well, I know which side of the barricades I’d want to be on.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

If only we'd known

Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission and one of the architects of the European project, has admitted that the Eurozone is “flawed” and that "a fault in execution" meant that the present crisis was “inevitable.”

That’s more or less the equivalent of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the deceased Libyan leader, admitting that the recent unrest had “not gone quite as well as his family might have hoped” and that perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, you could see that it was likely that 40-odd years of brutal tyranny might have led to “a degree of dissatisfaction among some sections of the population.”

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Imagination versus Reality

It is one of the surreal delights of these re-run shows to witness the glorious spectacle of the Top of the Pops dancers in full flight. In the autumn of 1976 Ruby Flipper still reigned supreme, but the 'new' dancers are just about to be named, as Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart announced the other week. Ed, dressed more like an insurance salesman than a happening DJ, announced that the new name would be chosen by a member of the public, through a proper, old-school ‘answers on a postcard’-type competition. One can only imagine some of the suggestions that must have come in, particularly from the watching dads.
All will be revealed this week, but look away now if you don’t want to know the answer. The new dancers will be called ‘Legs and Co.’ and they will caper and cavort gracefully for some fifteen years.

But now that Legs and Co. are about to be sworn in to perform their sacred duties as the ‘Queen’s own interpreters of pop lyrics and tempos through the medium of dance’, I must admit that I’m missing Ruby Flipper. Not for their dancing, because I’m in no position to say whether their dancing was bad, good or mediocre. When dancers are on TV, I usually just concentrate on the movement of the ones I fancy the most. It’s hardly a sophisticated response, but it does at least allow me to have grounds for stating a preference. When the re-runs started and I was re-introduced to the delights of Ruby Flipper, I found, curiously, that I still liked the one that I used to fancy when I was a lad, all those years ago. That probably means something significant, unless it doesn’t.

When you have a crush on someone at school and you unexpectedly meet up with that person thirty years later, it’s probably fair to say that the odds are against that attraction still being strong. Time will have exacted a toll and it won’t have been cheap. That rule, of course, doesn’t apply in TV land, where a kind of immortality is achieved by those fortunate enough to have been preserved in amber by the magic box. When I was re-acquainted, three decades on, with ‘the Flipper’ (or, more specifically, with Cherry Gillespie), I discovered that the old magic was still there. She still had it going on, in spades.

All of which reminds me of a joke that was popular when I was at school.

A little boy says to his mum: “Mum, are Legs and Co. robots?” to which mum replies: “No, why do you ask that, son?” “Because” says the boy, “daddy said he’d like to screw the arse off one of them.”

To the jaundiced modern eye, the TOTP dancers and their all-too-literal interpretations of pop lyrics look somehow irredeemably naff. Sadly, it’s not just a comedic aspect that is noticeable; now that we’ve become accustomed to simulated sex as a virtual staple of ‘dancing’ in modern pop videos, those old-school routines look so impossibly innocent. It’s hard to imagine that there might have been a time when these routines would have been considered suggestive, perhaps even raunchy. The routines and the costumes were designed to leave some things to the imagination. Imagination, in those days, worked a lot of overtime. Imagination was busy filling in the blanks and embellishing ‘reality’, because reality was obliged to work to a pretty rigid set of rules. Nowadays, when you watch someone like Rihanna performing, imagination is waiting in the wings, twiddling its thumbs, hoping in vain to be called into action. When you observe the leap that ‘reality’ has taken from 1976 to 2011 and consider the probability that the same kind of leap might be taken over the next couple of decades, you can only conclude that imagination is very shortly going to be out of a job.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Is there such a thing as an 'honour killing'?

Uzma Naurin was shot, along with her husband Saif Rehman, three weeks ago near the city of Gujrat in Pakistan. The couple lived in Glasgow, but were on holiday when their car was ambushed by gunmen. Every report I’ve seen, heard or read has used the term ‘honour killing’ in connection with this crime. The BBC website currently reports that: “The former in-laws of a woman killed in Pakistan in a suspected honour killing have been questioned by police.”

One of the frustrating things about the mainstream media (not to mention our abject political class) is that they don’t trust us, the great unwashed, to have grown-up discussions and disagreements about matters of race and culture. In polite company, people -for the most part- are afraid to express anything less than complete approbation for the tenets of multiculturalism, for fear that they might leave themselves open to accusations of racism. I would suggest that if you compel folk to walk on eggshells to that extent, all you will do is build up a store of resentment that, sooner or later, will find an outlet.

This incident should have been named, shamed and condemned as a crime and reported accordingly. When the mainstream media use the term 'honour killing' they give the murder a status it did not deserve. By using the ridiculous nomenclature, they acknowledge that there is a cultural /religious aspect to the killing. They then compound that mistake by disallowing any debate on those cultural /religious aspects for fear of offending those who belong to that culture /religion.

The mainstream media can't have it both ways. If they report stuff like this simply as 'murder,' it can be put in the same file as other horrible crimes of a similar hue.
If, however, they insist on using the term ‘honour killing’ (and it doesn't matter whether or not they put inverted commas around it), they have to be big enough to accept that people will want to talk about the cultural /religious aspects of that term.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

I've got a beard, get me out of here

So the BBC is running old editions of TOTP from 1976. I’ve no idea why they started the re-runs from that particular year. Perhaps it’s something as simple as them not having a complete record from previous years. Or then again, maybe it is something to do with 1976 being perceived in some quarters as pop’s ‘year zero’, the date at which punk -according to legend- revolutionised the music scene. The truth, however, is that punk was mainly an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, one that paved the way for some interesting music to follow. As a 'movement' however, it didn't produce that much in the way of great songs. There is plenty of music from the period 1976 to 1978 that still sounds fresh and vibrant today (the work of Stevie Wonder and David Bowie springs to mind), but I don't think that is quite the case with the majority of punk's output. Some folk hold it as an article of faith that punk ‘changed everything’, but if changing everything means changing the face of the pop charts, the ‘punk changed everything’ theory doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, as ten minutes on the intergoogle studying chart statistics will tell you.

Mind you, watching some of the acts from 1976, it’s easy to see why there might have been a musical reaction against what appeared to be the stultifying dominance of middle-of-the-road and cheesy pop. It may have stopped just short of being an actual reign of terror, but the saccharine ranks of MOR and cheese managed, on a regular basis, to dope the charts into a state of torpor. Take for instance the band Liverpool Express, who got to number eleven with ‘You are my love’. As an art statement, this track was -in its own way- pretty extreme, because it took the concept of ‘lightweight middle of the road’ right to the middle of the middle of the road and then knocked some of the edginess off until the sound was gossamer-light. Then they smoothed off any remaining rough edges in the hope of achieving a theoretical state of absolute translucence. Add to that an uber-trite lyric that even Hallmark’s A and R department might have rejected for its excessive vapidity and you’ve got a recipe for musical revolt. Being subjected to this kind of stuff on a regular basis would have made any self-respecting kid hanker for scruffy bands with loud guitars and a working knowledge of, at best, three major chords.

For all their evil genius, Liverpool Express had nowhere near the level of success enjoyed by the Greek singer Demis Roussos, a chart phenomenon who appealed mainly, I suspect, to ladies of a certain age. Demis dressed like a character from an episode of Star Trek, in which Kirk and crew had beamed down to a planet where the dominant species had evolved from a race of fortune tellers and new age therapists. He sometimes appeared on TOTP through the miracle of specially-filmed clips shot in Greece, or at least shot somewhere that was hot, with rocks and sand and electricity that was magically supplied to the various unplugged instruments. He was a handsome big fellow and he did his fair share of smouldering, but that ‘mean and slightly moody’ look was rather at odds with his high-pitched vocal delivery, which often attracted scorn from his critics. He may have sold millions of records, but many folk will remember him for having been disparaged by Mike Leigh in the play ‘Abigail’s Party’, wherein his anodyne music was a deemed to be a risible signifier of the upwardly mobile suburbanite affectations of the main character. It can’t be all that pleasant having a bearded lefty playwright looking down his nose at you, so for that reason alone I’d be inclined to stick up for Demis.

Perhaps one of the reasons he attracted ridicule was that, with song titles like ‘My friend the wind’ and ‘Goodbye my love, goodbye’, (yes, it’s that second ‘goodbye’ that does it), you got the impression that he took himself quite seriously. Maybe someone should have advised him to take ‘down to earth’ lessons from another mid-seventies chart topper, David Essex. Essex, now playing someone’s granddad on Eastenders, was an astonishingly good-looking song-and-dance man who lucked out with a succession of film roles and chart smashes. Watching him the other week perform even a mediocre song like ‘Home’ was a real pleasure, perhaps because he had the look of a man who knew full well that he had pretty much won the lottery and was loving every minute of it. Essex was by no means a great singer, but he had an individual character to his voice, an impish grin and the general air of a man who didn’t appear to take himself too seriously, a man who knew that he had managed to make a little bit of talent go a very long way. A bit like Robbie Williams, but twice as charming, three times as good-looking and nowhere near as needy.

David Essex didn’t invite ridicule in the way that Demis Roussos evidently did. Perhaps folk suspected that Demis, with his quasi-operatic vocal style and his progressive rock background (he was in ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ with keyboard wizard Vangelis), thought that pop music was maybe just a wee bit beneath him. Maybe the hair, the beard, the clothes and the moody demeanour gave out the coded message that he would have been much happier fronting a ‘proper’ progressive rock band and appearing with other bearded blokes on the Old Grey Whistle Test. And maybe then Mike Leigh wouldn’t have been so snotty about him.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

It's 1976 ... it's Top of the Pops!

Anyone who doesn’t watch BBC 4 (and that’s probably about 95% of the viewing public) may be unaware that the station has been running old editions of ‘Top of the Pops’ in sequence, starting from 1976. They’re also scheduling the show in the old TOTP slot on Thursday nights. Unless my arithmetical abilities have undergone a spectacular deterioration, I reckon that means we’ll reach the final edition of the show sometime in 2041. By that time, of course, pop music probably won’t exist. Or, if it does, we’ll all be flying around in jetpacks and ‘music’ will be taken in the form of a pill. Or maybe it will be stored in a virtual cloud that you’ll access by blinking to activate the i-tunes chip that your robot parent will have had fitted in your head as a present on your fourth birthday.

Apart from one aberration when Jonathan King was edited out of a show, each edition of the 1976 TOTP is being shown exactly as it appeared at the time. King’s contribution was cut, presumably because his well-documented crime was deemed by someone at Broadcasting House to have been so heinous as to merit being airbrushed from history. After writing to the BBC, he got a nice apology from Director General Mark Thompson and an assurance that it would not happen again. Let’s see if they can stick to that promise when the time comes to re-run Gary Glitter’s ‘Another Rock ‘n’ roll Christmas’.

Whatever else it did, Top of the Pops represented the 'settled will' of the audience; that is, it played the most popular songs of the day. Whenever we complained about the content (as we certainly used to in our house) we were really complaining about other people's awful musical tastes. And, judging by the fare on offer from 1976, there was plenty to complain about.
I may go into some detail on this topic.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Sir Furious ... 25 and counting.

When football chat turns to the topic of who is the best manager of all time, we don’t always consider the factors that would allow us to tackle this question with a degree of scientific rigour and objectivity. Some of us will talk about the manager that we like the best, or the one we think did the best at the club or country that we support. Football is a competitive sport, so how else should we judge football managers, if not by results? And, when we try to judge, those results should be viewed in some kind of context, with consideration given to the circumstances under which they were achieved. We can argue until the cows come home about which managers we like the best, but the 'best' -by any objective measure- is the person that comes out on top most often.

So … here are five reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson is the best manager of all time.

1. He’s had unprecedented success with an unfashionable club.

Most professional leagues are dominated by a handful of powerful clubs, so anyone who can buck their local trend deserves to be considered an exceptional talent. Perhaps you’d have to live in Scotland to appreciate the scale of what Ferguson achieved at Aberdeen in the early eighties. To break into the Celtic-Rangers duopoly was a monumental achievement; to win a European trophy is simply off the scale. It can be argued that Brian Clough, in terms of over-achieving at unfashionable clubs, has a better record than Ferguson. His feats at Nottingham Forest and, to a lesser extent, Derby, were remarkable, but Clough doesn’t score in the other categories.

2. He’s had success over a sustained period.

Ferguson won promotion with St. Mirren in the mid-seventies and won his first league title with Aberdeen in 1980. 31 years later, he's still winning. Old-timers might mention Bill Struth at Rangers, who managed for 34 years, amassing ten league titles, ten Scottish Cup, two League Cups and various other Glasgow Cups and Merchant Charity Cups. With all due respect, some of these trophies don’t carry a whole lot of weight in historical terms and Struth’s Rangers (like Jock Stein’s all-conquering Celtic in the 60s and 70s) competed in a relatively weak league that is dominated by two teams.

3. He’s had success with different clubs, in different leagues.

Some managers have great success at one club, but fail to replicate that success elsewhere; Don Revie, for instance, was outstanding at Leeds, but did little of note away from Elland Road. It takes truly exceptional talent to achieve great success in more than one job and Ferguson has been a league champion and a European trophy winner with two teams in two countries. Mourinho has succeeded in Portugal, England and Spain, while Huddink, Robson, Trappatoni and Eriksson (and probably a few others) all have very impressive CVs, but none of them score as convincingly in the other categories.

4. He has successfully built a number of winning teams over a prolonged period.

He is now on his fifth or sixth successful team at Man. Utd. Bob Paisley scores highly for his work at Liverpool, as does Jock Stein at Celtic, but again, not to the extent of Sir Furious. Bill Shankly resigned immediately after Liverpool had dismantled Newcastle in an FA Cup final, so Paisley inherited a side that was already very successful. He clearly took the club to another level, but his team-building achievements occurred within the span of a single decade. Jock Stein worked at a club with massive domestic advantages, playing –to all intents and purposes– in a two-team league, wherein any achievements by the old firm have to be viewed in the context of an extremely lop-sided domestic set-up.

5. He’s won the trophies

Nothing in the modern era compares with the haul achieved by Ferguson. He has won twelve league titles at Man. Utd, three at Aberdeen, four major European trophies and god knows how many FA Cups and League Cups. It's a frightening total.
Some have suggested that for a club of Manchester United’s stature to have won the Champions League ‘only’ twice is a tad disappointing. Bob Paisley, after all, won three European Cups in five seasons and, since it is the major trophy in club football, there is a case for saying that he was more successful. But the European Cup in those days (much as it might be difficult for fans of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Celtic to concede) was a knock-out tournament in which two successful rounds (perhaps against part-time Scandinavian or mediocre Eastern European opposition) took you to the quarter-finals. The European Cup was an easier tournament to be successful in than the current Champions League. That’s why teams like Malmo, Bruges and Partizan Belgrade could make it to the final. That’s why teams like Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Steau Bucharest could win it.

It has been claimed that Ferguson was lucky to survive at Manchester United after his first three seasons appeared to lack any obvious signs of progress. He inherited what was, in effect, a glamorous social club that played occasional games of football. He recognised quickly that Ron Atkinson had left behind a talented squad, but knew that he’d have to dismantle not only the team, but the whole culture of the club. That was always going to take time and, if the progress at first appeared to be relatively slow, it now seems clear that Ferguson was far too driven and talented not to have succeeded, one way or another.

Some critics have said that he would never have been as successful if he had ended up at, say, a Portsmouth or a Leicester, but all you have to do is look at Aberdeen's record 'pre' and 'post' Ferguson. You don’t need to analyse much more than that. Saying that Alex Ferguson wouldn't have been successful away from Manchester United is a bit like saying Roger Federer would never have won the British Open if he had taken up golf instead of tennis. It's entirely hypothetical and pretty close to being pointless. So here's another hypothesis: Had he left Aberdeen for Wolves or Tottenham when he had opportunities in the mid-eighties, he would have been successful with them and would eventually have moved on, because Alex Ferguson was born to manage Manchester United.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Law 3, Cheats 0

As expected, former Pakistan cricket captain Salman Butt and fast bowler Mohammad Asif have been found guilty of ‘conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments’. Another bowler, Mohammad Amir, admitted to these charges prior to the trial. All three plotted to deliberately bowl ‘no-balls’ during a test match against England last summer and now face the prospect of going to jail.
Before the trial, some folk made the mistake of trying to underplay the seriousness of these offences, basing their interpretation of events on an erroneous assumption that mere no-balls do not decide cricket matches.
It is clear, however, that if -during the course of a match- a player is motivated by the desire to do anything other than overcome his opponent, the outcome of the game has already been changed.
I can understand why folk might be tempted to believe, for example, that deliberately getting run out (or dropping a catch) is somehow worse than deliberately bowling the odd no ball. But that ignores the main point: you're either a cheat or you're not, in the same way that you are either 'pregnant' or 'not pregnant'.
Whether you are three weeks into a pregnancy or eight months into a pregnancy, you are still pregnant. Whether you deliberately drop a catch or deliberately bowl a no-ball, you're still a cheat. You have betrayed the spirit of the game and you should forfeit the right to be part of that game.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A plea for metric time

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have complete confidence in the ability of the EU leaders to come up with a cunning plan to subvert the pesky laws of economics. If anyone can find a way to keep us printing, borrowing and spending non-existent money for another few decades, then Sarkozy, Merkel and company are just the lads and lasses to do it.

In fact, I think we should go all the way with the Euro boffins and adopt some more of their wizzard schemes. For instance, I’d like to see the UK move over to the ‘metric’ time system used in some parts of the Eurozone. Over there, I am given to understand, they have 20-hour days (in two blocks of ten), an extra day in the week and a 'rollover' 32 extra hours each month that you can use for holidays and special occasions (or you can 'bank' them until your retirement). It may sound a little complicated, but it’s really a much fairer system than what we have now. Why, in this day and age, should we be shackling folk to the social construct of an old-fashioned calendar and to the oppressive restraints of strictly ‘linear’ time?

Under the metric system, the extra day (Euroday, added on between Thursday and Friday) is made up of the 4 hours that are taken from the 7 ‘old’ days in the traditional calendar. That leaves 8 hours extra per week, or 32 per month. If you want to 'bank' your extra hours until retirement, you can apply for a special licence from the EU time commissioner. Or, if you are happy to use those 32 extra hours at the end of each month, you simply notify your employer in order to qualify for the time off. The current ruling is that no more than 66.6% of this ‘extra’ time can be used to augment the normal weekend allowance. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled on several test cases involving folk who have tried to use only a few of the 32 hours (carrying the remainder over to the following month), but the administration involved in maintaining that kind of system would be nightmarish.

The EU time-boffins are currently drafting an updated version of the legislation, to allow for more flexible ‘time-banking’ arrangements. It should be ready by 2015, or next Tuesday.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Old songs never die

I was astonished when a friend alerted me recently to the fact that a limited edition single by a band I fronted in the late eighties had been sold on e-bay for £170.

My guess is that the folk who were bidding for it were interested because it is rare, not because it is a work of towering genius (because it isn't). It is possible (or maybe even probable) that these bidders were hardly interested in the music at all. They may well have been specialist collectors interested solely in gathering artefacts from a particular time and place. In this case, their passion would appear to have focused on obscure Glaswegian pop acts of the late eighties.

When I buy music, it is usually because I like the song and /or the artist. I say ‘usually’ because I recall, with a degree of embarrassment, that I was once bedazzled into purchasing an Alicia Keys album on the back of a beguiling TV appearance. Talented as she is, I suspect that had Ms Keys looked like Jabba the Hut, I would have been rather less beguiled and rather more inclined to let her middling tunes pass me by. I’ve nothing in particular against her music, but the fact that, once purchased, I hardly played the album in question indicates that I was hypnotised more by her beauty than her talent.
So, the odd exception apart, I buy music because I like how it sounds. Whilst it’s true that there are artists that I really like (or even love), I don’t feel any particular need to own everything that they have ever recorded. If they’ve put out something that doesn’t hit the mark, I’m quite happy to let it go. But the true collector has a different mentality; he or she (and let’s be honest and acknowledge that ‘collecting’ is an overwhelmingly male occupation) will need to own everything once his full attention has focused on the object (or objects) of desire.

The unfathomable logic of this need to collect has now seen fit to bestow ‘value’ upon an obscure old song that, all but forgotten, had long been grazing in the far fields of memory. It’s been slightly odd coming to terms with the fact that music I made more than two decades ago has -for whatever reason- acquired some significance for a small group of people. Even odder is the fact that collectors are willing to pay extraordinary sums of money to own an artefact that had long ceased to have anything but sentimental value for me and, I’m sure, for the other musicians involved in making it.

As it happens, I have several of these valuable artefacts gathering dust up in my attic. Without wishing to get carried away or to diminish the exalted status of this rare piece of vinyl, I’m thinking that this might be the break that has been tantalisingly just around the corner since 1988. It may be time to quit the day job.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The trouble with trolling

It has been interesting to hear some of the comments made over the last couple of days in relation to the case of Sean Duffy. In case you missed it, Duffy from Reading, Berkshire, was jailed for 18 weeks for sending abusive messages on social networking sites. His victims were the bereaved relatives of people he didn't know and had no connection with, including the family of the Worcester teenager Natasha MacBryde, who killed herself after being bullied. He pleaded guilty to two counts of sending communications (via Facebook and YouTube) of an indecent or offensive nature.
Duffy appears to be a pathetic individual whose horrible and stupid actions have caused a great deal of grief. Some have suggested that the fact that he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome is a mitigating factor. This syndrome may well cause him to lack empathy, but there is, surely, quite a leap from merely ‘lacking empathy’ to posting the kind of vile messages he inflicted upon the grieving families.

We can argue about whether or not his condition may have been a mitigating factor, just as we can argue about whether or not a jail sentence was the appropriate punishment for his actions, but what is more concerning is the possible fall-out from this case. Almost all of the news reports have described it as a ‘trolling’ offence. Trolling, in internet slang, is the practice of posting inflammatory messages in an online community with the intent of provoking heated responses. Trolling is not big and it’s not clever, but it’s also not what Duffy was doing; his malicious actions deserve a far more pejorative label. The fact that he has been labelled as a ‘troll’ should worry us all.

If the notion that trolling can be criminalised is allowed to fester and grow, there will be grave implications for freedom of speech. Should we start to concede that trolling might be a criminal offence, we might as well declare open season for all of the single-issue zealots and grievance-monkeys who would jump at the opportunity to prosecute ‘trolls’ who expressed ‘unacceptable’ views on any number of topics – abortion, climate change, immigration, creationism, whatever.

The desire to close down debate is, in essence, a totalitarian impulse (both Stalin and Mao-Tse-tung criminalised and pathologised local dissent). If we open that door to the criminalisation of 'trolling', we face a bleak, Orwellian future.
It’s a fact of life that some people are morons and have stupid, hateful, ill-informed opinions. Internet traffic merely reflects that fact. That’s why the trolls should be left alone.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Art for art's sake

Songwriting and performing are subjects close to my heart, perhaps because I’ve written literally dozens of hit songs and played to thousands of people in fantastic venues all over the world.

No … wait a minute, I was thinking about someone else there.

Over at my website, I regularly post a ‘song of the week’, which is usually accompanied by a few brief notes designed to illuminate some of the musical and lyrical aims of each piece.

The idea for this week’s song (‘Novelty Act’ by The Eisenhowers) came to me while I was driving home to Glasgow at stupid o’clock, having played a gig in Aberdeen to not very many people. At that time in the wee small hours, faced with the prospect of dragging myself into work on a meagre ration of sleep, it seemed like rather a foolish way for a responsible adult to spend his time, an idea conveyed in the opening line: “To get right to the point: it’s looking bad.”

Up until sometime around your mid-to-late twenties, it’s relatively easy to maintain the enthusiasm, energy and belief required to play in a band. The combination of wide-eyed innocence and exuberant ambition can be intoxicating if you're on the inside, but also quite endearing for the observer. At that stage, you are pretty resilient (in fact, you’re close to being bullet-proof) because, essentially, you believe that your big break is just around the corner. As the years pass and you begin to realise that you are still quite some distance from becoming the next U2, you’ll wonder, sometimes, why the hell you are still doing it. Your friends and relatives, once full of enthusiasm and willing to turn up in numbers at your gigs, will start to withdraw, perhaps puzzled and slightly embarrassed as to why, in the face of all the available evidence, you’re sticking with it.

From that point, a peculiar brand of resilience is required to maintain your efforts, but it’s a brand that may lead those friends and relatives (and don’t even think about your enemies) to write you off as being -at best- slightly eccentric, but more likely drifting somewhere on the outskirts of Delusionsville, just a few short stops away from Nutter Central, where 55-year old postmen can turn up at the X-Factor auditions believing themselves to be the natural heirs to David Bowie or Jon Bon Jovi.

Anyway … to get right to the point. I concluded a long time ago that people should make music because they want to. If they are 'successful' (whatever that means), then good luck to them. If they are not 'successful', who cares? If you’re getting something from playing music, you should continue to do it. That 'something' could be peace of mind, catharsis, the sheer joy of making some meaningful noise, or perhaps the admiration of three slightly drunk folk at a midweek acoustic gig. Your 'something' might even be the deranged notion that somehow your genius will one day be recognised by the rest of humankind. Whatever. Making music might occasionally lead to heartache and humiliation, but it’s still better than lots of other activities I could name.

And that, I think, is what the song in question is trying to say. In spite of being forged in the dark foundry of jaded cynicism, it somehow manages to express a degree of optimism about the creative process.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

non-definitive soup list

For my first blog post, it would probably be wise to avoid tackling any sensitive issues. I’ve been advised that there is no need to stir things up, no need to court controversy just for the sake of it. It’s all too easy to offend certain sensibilities and one has to be careful not to alienate the audience, even if that audience, in this case, is essentially me, proof-reading this thing, plus some guy in Milton Keynes who bought one of my CDs in 2003. “Keep to the middle of the road”, I was told by a blogging friend “and try not to frighten the horses.”

So, rather than court controversy by going into the lurid details of why I have just been expelled from the West of Scotland branch of the Nazi Sex-Party Association for so-called ‘inappropriate behaviour’, I’m going to kick off with soup.

Everyone has got an opinion on soup, but you don’t ever see folk arguing or fighting about it. Well … apart from that time at my cousin’s wedding when, after what came to be known as ‘the cock-a-leekie incident’, the riot police were called, several arrests were made and a report was sent to the Procurator Fiscal.

I’m currently working on my end-of-the-year list of favourite soups. Given that it is only August, this obviously isn't the final draft. Who knows what will happen between now and December, but the current top five (in no particular order) are:

Carrot and Coriander
Mexican Chilli Bean
Tomato and Basil

I have to say, now that I’ve seen the ‘soup list’ set out in all its glory, I’m inclined to think that perhaps there’s a better balance to be had between ‘controversial-for-the-sake-of-it’ and ‘depressingly-pointless-in-an-existential-sense’.

I may post an update once I've given this some more thought.